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Friday, 13 September, 2002, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
A nation's pain and loss
NY sky line
Time of great emotion in New York

To be in the United States on 11 September was to witness the intensity of a nation's pain.

A year may have elapsed since one of the most shocking days in American history. But many people here are still struggling with their emotions, and a profound sense of loss.

These feelings are not confined to bereaved families, or those who lost close friends and colleagues.

It is a communal sense of loss that pervades almost every aspect of daily life. Some people have talked of a loss of innocence.

Realisation of vulnerability

The terrorist attacks on 11 September made them realise how vulnerable they were to those who despise the American way of life.

It was not a comfortable thought for a nation whose people grew up believing they were safe within their own borders. Americans have much to reflect on, not least the direction their country should now take.

Some speak of vengeance, but others talk about a need for a better understanding about their place in the world.

Whatever the analysis, however, it is the human loss that still pulls at the emotions.

Nowhere is this more true than in New York, a city that lost 2,801 of its citizens in a single, dreadful day.

At one level, New York has staged a remarkable recovery over the past 12 months. Life here has resumed its usual, noisy bustle.

This is city full of energy and vitality. Love it or loathe it, it is a place with a unique spirit.

Road to recovery

"New York is back" is the simple message the city wants to send out to the world.

But for many of its people, determined to get on with their lives, emotions are still pretty raw.

Sitting in Central Park, an at open air concert that followed the day of remembrance, I talked to one family who will never again take their life together for granted.

Mark used to work at the World Trade Center. On 11 September last year he arrived a little late, because it was his son's first day at school.

Still at ground level, out on the street, he saw the planes hit the towers, and debris rained down around him. But he was able to escape, unlike so many others.


As far as I am concerned, everyone was a hero that day

New York fire chief

"I lost friends," he says simply, a catch in his voice. His wife Maria puts a hand gently on his shoulder. The look that passes between them requires no words.

She turns to me and says: "I have two beautiful children, and I am happy to have my husband here with us today".

Looking across the park, at the candles flickering in the twilight, you know there are thousands of similar stories. Almost everyone has been touched by this tragedy.

Survival guilt

In many cases, it was pure chance whether someone lived or died. It has made it even harder for bereaved families to accept what happened.

I have talked to many New York firefighters, a group of workers now held in awe because of their selfless bravery on 11 September.

Some are uneasy about being described as heroes, but others, remembering their 343 fallen colleagues, accept the label without embarrassment.

"I saw my men going into the towers," one fire chief told me. "As far as I am concerned, everyone was a hero that day."

This is a man who escaped after being buried by one of the falling towers. Many firefighters count themselves lucky to be alive, and have had to deal with the guilt of having survived when so many friends died.

I have been surprised by the way survivors and the families of victims have been so willing to talk about their experiences.

You raise the subject cautiously, but the stories come flooding out.

I remember asking one man about his escape from the World Trade Center. He talked for 20 minutes, without a pause.

Woman and child at Ground Zero ceremony
Remembering lost loves at the Ground Zero ceremony

Perhaps it helps to talk, even to a stranger. But the openness of many New Yorkers in discussing their feelings suggests a powerful sense of community, following the tragedy.

It really does feel like a city that has been brought closer together by shared grief.

It is impossible not to be affected by what you hear. You can understand why some people here feel emotionally drained.

They need to move on now, although they know they will never be able to forget what has happened.

It has become a cliché to say that 11 September has changed the United States. But like most clichés, there is more than an element of truth about it.

For many Americans, the day of the attacks was a defining moment, and their lives will never be the same again.


New York despatches

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